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Balkans: Stability Pact Action Visible At Last

The organization of the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe is now making final preparations for a major financing conference to raise money for economic and political development in the Balkans. The event should give substance to the pact, which has been practically invisible since it was formed last summer. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 9 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Stability Pact for Southeast Europe aims to raise at this month's financing conference some $1 billion in short-term funding to promote development in the Balkan countries. The two-day Brussels conference (Mar. 29-30) should finally provide the pact's organization with a visible profile, which has been largely lacking until now.

The stability pact was launched with much fanfare at a summit in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo last July. Leaders came from the Group of Seven top industrial nations plus Russia, as well as from the European Union and international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Not least, there were high-ranking representatives from the Balkan region itself, including Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia.

Bodo Hombach of Germany was appointed special coordinator of the pact's effort to help increase stability in the chronically troubled Balkans by promoting economic development, political stability and observance of human rights.

After the sound of the speeches in Sarajevo died away, however, there followed -- mostly silence. But according to Hombach's spokesman Andrew Levi, the quiet did not mean the organization was inactive.

Levi says that behind the scenes there has been a lengthy effort to build consensus between the prospective donors and the countries of the region itself. In parallel, he says, preparations have been made for the coming financing conference:

"The idea here is to ensure that the verifiable commitments of the countries of the region to reform, which is absolutely necessary for progress in the future, are matched by two things: one, global commitments of the donor countries to the future of the region for the next five or 10 years, and second, a coherent and coordinated package of measures for the next year or two." Levi defends his organization from suggestions that it has taken a long time to get off the ground. He says that, after all, it has needed only a "few months" to flesh out the Sarajevo summit decisions, and that projects can start immediately, or almost immediately, after the funds are pledged and available:

"Up to now, we have been like an orchestra which has been playing a few good tunes, but now we are moving into the phase of really playing the full symphony, and I hope that will increasingly become clear in the months and years ahead".

Stability pact officials are in the final stages of selecting exactly which projects to present to the financing conference. Economic possibilities range from road-building to link the region into trans-European transport corridors through improvement of ports, airports, and water supplies. On the socio-political side, there are questions of police training, refugee return and improvement of customs procedures. Another subject is the retirement of military officers and their re-integration into civil life as a result of military force reductions in the region.

Levi points out that the Blace border crossing, on the main road between the Macedonian capital Skopje and Pristina in Kosovo, provides a good example of how the pact can concretely improve real situations. Chaotic conditions at the crossing mean long delays for commercial traffic, with consequent economic losses.

The European Union's External Relations commissioner, Chris Patten, visited Blace this week (Mar. 7). While there, he said the EU is ready to commit immediately some $5 million, within the framework of the pact, to improve procedures and infrastructure at Blace.

Patten's spokesman Gunnar Wiegand says the Commissioner's trip was meant as a sign of the EU's commitment to the region. The trip encompassed Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. In Bosnia, Patten met visiting U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for what one U.S. official described as an opportunity to pool strategy on ways to improve implementation of the Dayton peace accords.